Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 800
Unlike the protagonists of McGuane's earlier novels, Frank Copenhaver is already a successful businessman as the novel commences, and its trajectory lies in the story of Frank's disillusionment, overextension and failure, as opposed to the "upward" struggles of McGuane's other heroes. While Frank diagnoses his own malaise as "a fatal inability to direct himself to the point," his acid-tongued commentary and wild bravado are far from lacking a point, as he serves as the lens for the kind of sharply focused social satire that McGuane readers have come to expect. At the same time, the realities of his life — his middle age, his personae as businessman, father, ex-1960s hippie, fisherman and failed husband — give to Copenhaver a richness of wistfulness, regret and rueful contemplation, and a pervading, aching loneliness. At times, his self-regard holds largely a core of irony, as when he notes the absorption of himself and his friends into images of their parents and further reflects that such a realization "lacks tragic dimension almost as certainly as podiatry does." At other times, however, his musings are more revealing, as when he sees himself as caught in a new loneliness "which came not from solitude but from ambiguity about his everyday activities." The key here is the notion of ambiguity, in that it is precisely the recognition of ambiguity, the sense that things may have a shifting and uncertain meaning, that is ultimately the undoing and salvation of Copenhaver.
As with any businessman, it is fit that Copenhaver be surrounded by acquaintances, if not friends, and of the males he notes that "it was good to have companions like these, large mammals," just before entering a barroom brawl. Still, most of the men here are largely indistinguishable "suits": Dick Hoiness, a rock-band refugee now hawking insurance; Jensen the philandering doctor, George Carnahan the banker, whom Frank calls a "spineless puke and pig-kissing swindler." Notable among them for definition and power is Boyd Jarrell, partly because, as a redneck cowboy who will not take orders, he defies Copenhaver; partly because, in his boiling menace, he resembles other violent men of the earth in McGuane's fictions like Nichol Dance or Billy Ketton. These characters seem to come up like a recurrent bad dream for McGuane, one unable to be exorcised, and if they are no longer murderous, they are nonetheless unresolved in his fiction. Two other men of note deserve mention. Frank's brother Mike, the fat and happy orthodontist, poses another kind of civilized violence, in his willingness to sell the family home without sentimental attachment, in his ability, unlike Frank, to remove their dying mother from life support. And Phil Page, Frank's fishing buddy and fellow deserted husband, articulates the despair felt by Frank when he says that "if we didn't have trout fishing, there'd be nothing you could really call pure in our lives at all."
But if the male characters in the novel sometimes lack definition, it is more than compensated for by the women here, as the old criticism of McGuane's flatness in the treatment of women characters has been completely exploded. Although some of them are still as randy as in McGuane's earlier novels, the sense is that they are more in control than ever before, every bit the equals of and usually more powerful than Frank Copenhaver, both in the pain their departures produce in Frank and Phil Page, and in their engineering situations, as with Gracie, that Frank catches on to only much later. Notable among them is Frank's daughter Holly, who shares his love and skill in fishing, and who mimics her childhood success in reuniting her warring parents by pretending to drown by going through the elaborate pretense of romance with the right-wing "We, Montana" political lunatic Lane Lawlor. But even the minor characters, like the raucous and foul-mouthed Buick dealer June Cooper, or Frank's sometimes lover Lucy Dyer, are more than able to dish out as much as they take.
Of course, it is Frank's wife Gracie who demonstrates this independence of thought and capacity for benign manipulation the most, and although she exists largely out of our view, in the empty space of Frank's longing, her management of the situations is the most telling. It is the furthest extension of irony here that Grace had feigned, of all things, fishing, to buy the time to carry on the affair that broke their marriage, in that, while the purity and release found in the Sixteen River is damaged by her deception, she is still able to send Frank the message that, after all, she wants him back, and wanted him back even then. Although she says, as the novel ends, that "there's nothing crazier than picking up exactly where you left off," that is exactly where they do pick up.
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